Chigozie Victor, Mansir Muhamed & Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu / Humangle

Nigeria | The dirty war on Boko Haram

Terror continues to massacre northern Nigerian citizens, while the government persecutes ordinary villagers as ‘terrorists’.

The Islamic fundamentalist Boko Haram militia feeds on poverty and social injustice in northern Nigeria. The movement commits grave war crimes such as mass murder and the kidnapping of children. However, in the fight against it, the Nigerian military has become just another force to fear. Two stories, reported in December 2021 by Nigerian Humangle, a platform co-founded and directed by investigative journalist and ZAM network member Ahmad Salkida, focus on insecurity, victimisation, lack of protection by the security forces, and re-victimisation of citizens by the same security forces in that country. They are both republished below with consent. (EG)

1. Hannatu – The journey of a teacher who became a refugee

By Chigozie Victor, Mansir Muhamed

Madam Hannatu had a beautiful life before everything fell apart. There were the afternoon, evening and night lessons she loved at the Women’s Teacher’s College in Maiduguri, Borno State, Northeast Nigeria. This experience was made even more memorable with the mix of foreign and local teachers like Master Abraham Opare, her Ghanaian English tutor, who was nicknamed ‘Operation of English’. There was also her Indian biology teacher and the head teacher from Borno.

After her training at the teachers’ college, she went back home to Ngoshe in Borno State. In 1991, she worked for the Census Board and in 1992 was recruited by Americans who established a mission school in her village, where she would go on to teach for twenty years. Hannatu’s husband worked at the village hospital’s laboratory, so they lived in the hospital quarters. There, the family had access to clean water. They enjoyed the use of wash hand basins, got to shower in the bathroom among other things. Also, pharmacists and nurses would drop her off as they drove their children to school. Life was indeed good.Today, the small woman seated inside a primary school in Kuchingoro’s IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp in Yola is one of Borno’s displaced. Her touching story begins from when she fled with her children at the peak of the Boko Haram insurgency to neighbouring Cameroon.

Christmas and Sallah

‘Christians and Muslims were communicating and living in peace. During Christmas celebrations, we would cook food and give them and they would come to our celebration…During Sallah (a day of communal prayer for Muslims, ed.), they would equally cook food and give to us,’ Hannatu remembers. Life went on smoothly for everyone in Hannatu’s universe, until 2013 when Boko Haram killed three people in the marketplace. After that, they returned a second time and killed one more person, and a third time, killing three persons in the church. After the church attack, fear gripped everyone in Ngoshe. People no longer stayed out late for fear that they might be harmed.

After the church attack, fear gripped everyone in Ngoshe

In 2014, the situation in Ngoshe grew into full blown chaos. ‘Most of our children who were living in other states were the ones that accepted Boko Haram… We that were in the village, both Muslims and Christians, never wanted Boko Haram… They [Boko Haram] entered our village through those that lived inside,’ Hannatu tells HumAngle, adding that the young people who lived in Ngoshe would invite their peers (who were Boko Haram members) to visit and then they would stay.

Intense fear and distrust

The elders in the village warned the young to desist from the trend, but they continued anyway. With the infiltration of Boko Haram members into the village came intense fear and distrust. ‘Muslims would go to one side and Christians would go to the other side. We as Christians were afraid of them because Boko Haram started through them and not through us. We started fearing them and separating from them and that was how everything fell apart.’ Soon, parents quit sending their children to school and people stopped daily activities they thought were likely to put them in harm’s way. Chaos was brewing.

In April 2014, the villagers began to see even more strange faces around. The threat that was Boko Haram was hanging over Ngoshe like a dark cloud. When word got round that Boko Haram had threatened to abduct Hannatu and make her tutor their children or kill her if she refused, people urged Hannatu to flee the town. She refused. Then the men fled to the mountains because Boko Haram started slaughtering males who were up to the age of 18.

We decided to join the men in the mountains

The women would take food and water to their men in the mountains and pray for the crisis to come to an end, but instead it took an even more dangerous turn. Boko Haram began abducting women and children too. ‘That was when we decided to join the men in the mountains. It was the rainy season, so we suffered a lot of things like snake bites, as we were sleeping on the floor, the children also suffered from diarrhoea, cold and catarrh due to the weather,’ Hannatu remembers.

A shadow of itself

Ngoshe was already a shadow of itself and so was everyone in it. Education was halted. To make things worse, Boko Haram fighters followed them to the mountains. ‘Whenever they came to fight with us, we defended ourselves with this gun that hunters use in the bush,’ Hannatu says. Hannatu and her folks did not think that the situation would get any worse, except that it did; soon enough, Boko Haram brought foreign fighters with them and, with the foreign fighters came machine guns and even more sophisticated weapons. ‘When they felt that we were going to survive, they went and invited plenty of people from far and wide, even from different countries. Some of the men they invited had big and long beards and they tied their heads, leaving only their eyes,’ she said, describing fighters that might have come from other Sub-Saharan African countries in the Lake Chad region.

They would take women and children and keep them like slaves

‘They killed some of our men, took the women and children, gathered them in one house and kept them like slaves. They would buy okro, garri and food seasoning, then give them to the women to cook like that in order to feed themselves and the children.’ This was when Hannatu made the decision to flee Ngoshe with her children aged three and 12 and her sister’s 10-year-old. On April 12, 2014, Daily Post reported an attack that took place in Hannatu’s village. According to the report, Boko Haram fighters had invaded Ngoshe at about 10 PM and opened fire on already sleeping residents. They killed thirty, injuring several others, and setting some residential buildings ablaze. Hannatu decided it was time to leave while she still could.

With her three-year-old strapped to her back, the other two children by her side, Hannatu came down from the mountain in the company of others who were brave enough to escape. A woman had to leave her crying child behind in order not to compromise the safety of other travelers. ‘We could not flash light because if we did that, they would trace where we were passing through,’ she recalls.

A woman had to leave her crying child behind

Hannatu and other villagers fled Ngoshe to Cameroon that night. They trekked barefooted in order to minimise noise and avoid detection by the insurgents. They passed through the hills and valleys of the Gwoza mountains and parts of the Mandara mountain range southwest towards the Cameroon border. Along this path, the terrain is not plain, but rather slopey and wavelike, with grasses growing all over the landscape and the ground filled with dead leaves and twigs from surrounding trees and plant communities. It left the travellers with sore feet.

Mountains and rivers

The mountains are some of the highest in Borno State, with some peaks rising twelve hundred meters above sea level. Hannatu and her companions had to travel up and down hills on their way to Cameroon for ten hours. ‘We suffered a lot, every single one of us. We spent the whole night trekking before we got to the Cameroon border around seven in the morning. They [Boko Haram] even followed us to that border and shot one nursing mother who was breastfeeding her two-month-old in the right breast and two other men.’ Progressing southwards after the border, they forged ahead through border communities until they got to Zambuka. From there they passed through the border community of Gauzang and then settled in Massangam where they found safe haven for the next month, living in an open field. Without money, Hannatu remained there for one month and two weeks. She and the other women from her village fetched firewood from a nearby forest and built a tripod fireplace where they cooked whatever they could lay their hands on. Sometimes, it felt as though she had imagined it all— the hospital quarters where she lived with her husband and children, the running shower and other amenities. Now she and the other women had to go to the stream to fetch water. ‘When we would get to the stream, we would dig a hole and drink from it, fetch for cooking and also do our washing. Cows drank from this same stream.’

Help came when ‘some of our people in Nigeria who heard that we were sleeping in an open field contributed money and brought the truck that transports cows, and took us back to Nigeria, to the IDP camp.’ Travelling in the rickety lorry which usually conveyed cattle for interstate trade, now carrying hundreds of swarming bodies, squished together sardines, they were grateful.

This year, 2022, is the eighth year in the camp for Hannatu and her children. Her village is still unsafe.

See the original story, produced in partnership with Civic Media Lab under its Grassroots News Project.

2. The ‘confessed terrorist’ husbands of Borno

By Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu

She was going to wait for her husband’s return, no matter how long that was going to take. But three years into her wait, someone informed Zarah that her husband was one of the men who had drunk their own urine in the face of extreme thirst at the Borno Maximum Security Prison where he was being held, and that he had died afterwards.

Even though they had all heard of men drinking their urine for the sake of survival in prison and knew it was true, Zarah did not believe her husband was dead. Not at first. Then weeks later, a second person who had been to the prison also claimed they saw her husband die. And then another person. ‘It was not like it was just one person, you understand. It was multiple people, telling me the same thing. And so I thought there had to be truth to it,’ she tells HumAngle. And so after the third person told her, she believed it, and in grief, observed her Iddah period — the Islamic mourning and waiting period women observe after their husbands die. They had been married for 13 years. ‘The news was all over, and his parents even performed the charity rites for him.’

Shehu had been one of the victims of mass arrests

Her husband, Shehu*, had been one of the victims of the mass arrests carried out by the Nigerian army in 2015 during their counterinsurgency attempts when the Boko Haram insurgency reached its peak in Borno State. Zarah tells HumAngle that she and her husband had been fleeing the insurgency themselves, and he was part of a group of internally displaced persons (IDPs) wrongfully arrested. ‘We came to the military for safety but they arrested our husbands and took them to the barracks; it’s been over six years now.’

An official list

Sometime after she completed mourning her husband, Zarah remarried. ‘My parents told me to remarry because we didn’t hear anything about him at that time.’ But fourteen months into her new marriage, living at the Dalori Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp which was now her home, a man came with a list of men who had been transferred to the Mallam Sidi Camp in Gombe State from Borno’s Maximum Security Prison. The transfer was part of the Operation Safe Corridor (OSC) rehabilitation programme for captured ‘terrorists’.

Slowly, as he made his way through the list, and as she listened out of solidarity with the women whose husbands were in detention and who did not know their fate, the man read out Shehu’s name. ‘She was so shocked,’ the man, who asked to remain anonymous, tells HumAngle, clasping his hands together and slapping them on his chest, to mimic what her reaction that day was. Zarah laughs briefly, then continues her story. That day, after the man was done calling out the names, she still went to him to ask him if he was absolutely sure that Shehu was alive, she says. He said he was. It was an official list.

Zarah received the news with mixed emotions. She was delighted to hear that he was alive, but remained unsure what to do with her new husband, how to break the news to him and ask for a divorce. She was also saddened by the fact that Shehu was going to be transferred to Gombe. On the one hand, his transfer meant that he was close to freedom, as the programme usually took around six months. But it also meant that he was henceforth going to be regarded as a confirmed former Boko Haram terrorist.

If you said you were innocent, they would keep beating you.

The OSC programme is run for the rehabilitation and deradicalisation of ‘surrendered’ Boko Haram terrorists. Those coming from facilities where suspected terrorists are kept, -like Borno Maximum Security-, are usually transferred to the OSC camp in Gombe. There, they, among other things, learn a vocational skill for six months, after which they are released to go home. The facility is better than the prisons, as it is merely a camp and, though inmates are supervised, they are allowed to move around freely. They get food regularly, are allowed to have their baths whenever they want, and can participate in sports: all very different from the detention facilities that are known for congestion and deprivation of food and water, which led to the sort of thirst that drove Zarah’s husband and others into drinking urine.

It is therefore that, according to several former Maximum Security prisoners who spoke to HumAngle, some inmates would admit to being former Boko Haram terrorists simply because this would mean a transfer to Gombe. According to the former prisoners, those who insist on their innocence spend years in prison with no prosecution nor any form of communication or idea of when they will be released. Furthermore, at some military facilities, detainees were simply beaten until they ‘confessed’. In an earlier report, a graduate of the deradicalisation programme who had spent time in ‘terrorist’ detention at the military’s Giwa Barracks in Borno’s capital Maiduguri, told HumAngle that a confession was sometimes beaten out of inmates at the facility. ‘If you confessed, they left you alone. But if you said you were innocent, they would keep beating you.’

Stigma and disgust

Ever since his arrest in 2015, Zarah has still never seen Shehu, nor heard directly from him. What little news she got, besides the shock of finding his name on the ‘official list’, was whatever rumour brought her way. Likewise, others, too, believe what they hear. ‘You will see children in this camp telling other children that their father is Boko Haram because they took him to Gombe. The stigma and disgust is worse for the men who are taken there,’ Yakura Kumshe, one of the IDP camp inmates says. And so many are tainted as ‘Boko Haram’ when they are not.

The International Crisis Group, which analysed the OSC programme, has also noticed the mix of innocents with real insurgents in Gombe. It reported in March this year, that ‘authorities should improve intake procedures to filter out civilians who do not belong in the programme.’ It also reports that ‘authorities channel into Safe Corridor far too many civilians fleeing Boko Haram areas, mislabeling them Jihadists, (and) clogging the system.’

‘Authorities mislabel civilians as jihadists’

Similar to other civilians interviewed by Humangle, who, despite insisting on their innocence, were transferred to the camp in Gombe as ‘confessed terrorists’, Zarah insists on her husband’s innocence. She has divorced her new husband, who – after a few days of thinking to ‘process the news’- agreed to give her a divorce letter, saying that he would not have married her if he had known that her husband was alive. She still waits for Shehu’s return.

*Name changed

See the original story, produced in partnership with the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD)

See for background on the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria ZAM’s 2013 story Fertile Grounds, authored by ZAM investigative journalism network member Theophilus Abbah with the participation of (now Humangle editor) Ahmad Salkida.